Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fighting for the Fishery

Fighting for the Fishery

By: Ryan Young

No matter how bad things got, you could always fish. That was the way of the world for generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians before the fish went away and the cod fishery closed in 1992. I was just a young boy then, growing up in a thriving fishing town on the Northern Peninsula. Before the moratorium, my hometown had 2 fish plants and seven stores (if you include the 2 gas stations) to service 700 residents. Twenty-five years later that number has dropped to just 428. Only 1 store remains open and both gas stations have closed. Despite being located in one of the provinces best tourist draws, Gros Morne, the town was unable to sustain enough employment to keep people there, and as more people moved away, the jobs became even scarcer as the town began to slide down an endless downward spiral. Sadly, this story is not unique to my hometown. It is the story of many people’s hometowns since the moratorium.

While many people left the fishing boats behind in search of more stable employment away, the ones who stayed behind faced a constant uphill battle to make a go of it without the precious cod to catch. The industry changed and modernized, and the remaining harvesters and plant workers dug in and did whatever they could to stay home and live the lives passed down from their fathers and grandfathers. It wasn’t easy, but those who did stay managed to adapt and find new ways to earn their living from the sea. They invested in new gear and they learned how to fish all sorts of new species. After all, fishing is not just a job, it is a way of life. That may sound like a cliché, but it is true nonetheless and must not be discounted if we are ever going to have a frank and open discussion about the fishery in this province.

Now, we move into an era where the biomass of species such as crab and shrimp that replaced the cod in the holds and tubs aboard so many boats have been decimated, and quotas are being drastically cut, fish harvesters are left to wonder how this can be happening again. Almost overnight, some quotas were slashed in half, jeopardizing many enterprises throughout the province. With more bad news announced last week about the capelin biomass, harvesters are bracing for yet another blow to an already weakened industry. On the heels of that, we learned yesterday that the price for northern shrimp will be cut by 45 cents this season making the reduced quotas even more detrimental to the bottom line of boat owners. It should come as no surprise that harvesters have been protesting and demanding answers and accountability to the issues that are threatening their very way of life.

After a quarter century of being told to be patient and put their trust in DFO, harvesters are still wondering why they are not being consulted when it comes to fish science and setting quotas. This is the heart of why harvesters gathered at DFO and FFAW offices over the past couple of weeks and why Richard Gillett endured an 11-day hunger strike to ask for adequate consultation before finally being taken away in an ambulance when his health began to fail. While many have questioned Gillett’s tactics, the point that many people seem to be missing is that he and many other harvesters have been going through the proper channels for a long time without any satisfaction and they are genuinely worried about their futures.  When people don’t have anywhere else to turn, they lash out in desperation. That is what we have been seeing from harvesters, pure desperation that they may be about to lose their entire way of life and they don’t even get a say in the matter.

Hundreds supported Gillett’s hunger strike in person and thousands more supported him online. For those involved in the fishery, such drastic actions were easily justified if it meant bringing some serious attention to the issues that harvesters in this province feel need to be addressed. Many are wondering where our 7 federal MP’s stand on the fishery and an e-petition is being circulated to call for a federal public inquiry into the NL fishery. While fish management is not technically a provincial government issue, many are also wondering why Dwight Ball and Steve Crocker have not taken a tougher stance with Ottawa on the major issues surrounding our fishery. Independent MHA, Paul Lane is calling on the premier to initiate an all-party committee on the fishery to develop a position paper for the federal government with recommendations on how to best manage the industry as we move toward the future. Both the petition and the all-party committee are good ideas that would open the lines of communication and hopefully facilitate cooperation between both levels of government and harvesters, to ensure that all of our elected officials and managers are acting in the best interest of industry stakeholders.

In light of media attention and public scrutiny, the FFAW has tried to pass the protests off as little more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by FISH-NL.  Blaming the labour dispute is an easy way out for Keith Sullivan, but protestors outside of the union office on Hamilton Road on Monday were all very quick to point out that they are all due-paying members of the FFAW and all they are asking for is a seat at the discussion table. With so much turmoil and uncertainty in the industry right now, it is hard to blame the harvesters for wanting better communication from the union and DFO, or for asking to be part of the science. For years’ harvesters have complained that they are not included enough when decisions are made concerning the fishery. Their knowledge is invaluable to the success of the scientists and to the future success of the industry, and it is time for them to have a real seat at the table.

It doesn’t matter if you live in St. John’s, St. Anthony, or St. Lewis the fishery is a province-wide issue and a strong fishery is good for all of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is obvious that despite their efforts so far, the federal government has not been able to properly manage our fishery in a sustainable fashion. People who depend on the fishery are fed up with the status quo and it is time that both our provincial and federal governments start to work together, and directly with harvesters in this province to develop a fisheries management plan that will address both the short-term and long-term needs and goals of the industry. Gone are the glory days of the fishery, but maybe if we start to work together with openness and transparency, we can find a way forward to ensure that we will still have a viable industry for generations to come.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Budget 2017: Holding the Line

Budget 2017: Holding the Line

By: Ryan Young

After months of speculation and debate, Cathy Bennett delivered her second budget speech in the House of Assembly on Thursday. The large scale public sector layoffs that everyone was expecting did not materialize, and there was very little of anything to make headlines in this year’s budget speech. The deficit went down thanks to a rise in oil prices and production and the harsh revenue measures from budget 2016, but other than a few bright spots, the budget itself was pretty lackluster. Even the flagship peace offering, a decrease in the gas tax, was preempted by a seven cent rise at the pumps on Thursday. During it all, a small but boisterous crowd gathered on the front steps of Confederation building with food and music to let the government know that the people are still angry and they are not going away.

The really good news in the budget was that oil revenues were up, which along with the extra tax revenue, reduced the deficit from a projected $1.83 Billion to $1.1 Billion. The projected deficit for 2017-2018 is $778 million as long as oil prices hold steady. Oil production is expected to be slightly lower this year with a projected average price of $56 per barrel. Hebron will come online later this year but with an equity stake in the project, the province will not reap many benefits from that development in this fiscal year.

The gas tax reduction was the other big news in the budget, with the Liberals pledging to reduce the tax by 75% by the end of the year. The first reduction of 8.5 cents will come into effect June 1st with an additional 4 cents coming off in December. The remaining tax will be evaluated before the fall fiscal update. Unfortunately for the Liberals, their good news piece of the budget was counteracted by a big bump in the prices at the pumps. In any case, the reduction of this tax is good news, even if the other 299 taxes and fees they raised in budget 2016 are still in place.

Some other good news items were included in Bennett's speech. Money for child care subsidies and raises for Early Childhood Educators are positive stop-gap investments in lieu of a new child care strategy for the province. New money was allocated for planning for the replacement of the Waterford Hospital and the penitentiary. Money was also added to the justice system, including $250 000 for free legal advice for sexual assault victims and more crown attorneys to help reduce caseloads. Federal monies for mental health and home care came down the pipes, and $500 000 will be spent to hire new student assistants for inclusive classrooms. Funding was also restored to the operational grant for libraries to keep the doors open until the EY report is complete.

Transfers to Nalcor will come in at around $485 million, which is significantly lower than the $1.3 Billion allocated in budget 2016. Nalcor has also been instructed to find $210 million in revenues by 2020 to help offset electricity rate increases. No specifics were given on how that would be accomplished, but both Bennett and Premier Ball offered assurances that rate mitigation is a priority for this government.

It was a budget that tried to get a little bit in for a lot of groups and it did a good job of doing that without ruffling too many feathers. The downside is that the budget left in limbo thousands of public sector employees who still have no idea how safe their jobs are. Minister Bennett stated that mass layoffs would not be her approach but that her government would continue to find efficiencies moving forward. That has many believing that instead of facing the hard criticism of big job cuts, that they will dole them out instead as a death by a thousand cuts. While many public employees were breathing a sigh of relief that they still have a job today, they are still in a position of uncertainty when it comes to planning for their short and long-term futures. That will likely mean another year of decreased consumer confidence which will continue to negatively affect the economy.

Very little was done in this budget to address government spending. Nearly $300 Million in spending reductions are planned although we don’t know exactly where those savings will come from. A wage freeze was also introduced for this fiscal year for all managers and non-unionized public employees. While the freeze itself will not offer much in the way of savings, it may be setting the tone for future negotiations between Bennett and union leaders.

The overall theme put forth by the government seems to be that their tough decisions are working and that we are turning a corner and need to stay the course. The reality, however, is that we are doing better because of the price of oil, and even the massive hardships that have been placed on the people of the province have made little difference to our bottom line. The Liberals claim to be on track to reach their target of a return to surplus by 2022, but that claim is based on assumptions that oil will continue to rise and bail us out from our grim situation.

While there are a few good things in this budget, it is mostly an exercise in smoke and mirrors designed to buy the government another year in the hopes that oil royalties will allow them to spend their way out of the people’s bad books. There is no obvious plan to address spending issues or our escalating provincial debt, and despite a little well intentioned money being spent, all they really have to show for their efforts are plans to make more plans. While few would argue that proper consultation is needed before a government acts, many are wondering when this government will stop consulting and start acting on what they heard. The solutions offered in this budget are band-aids at best and offer no indication of what this government’s plans are, beyond waiting for the price of oil to go up.

As benign as Budget 2017 seems to be, the devil will be in the details and it might be quite a while before the full effects are known. Instead of large scale cuts we should expect layoffs in dribs and drabs, but the final number will likely depend on how much the price of oil rises. Even after the rude awakening we just went through on the dangers of relying to heavily on oil royalties, the Liberals seem content to ride the wave and hope to utilize offshore revenues to offset all of the new taxes and fees. They keep promising us a plan but what they delivered was a hold-the-line budget that does nothing to address the real issues at play. I guess all we can do is pray to the great god of oil and hope that the prices can stay up until we have time to elect a government that does have a plan.